Film Reviews and All That Jazz

All That Jazz - Film ReviewsI watched All That Jazz last night. I saw it in the theater in 1980. And I’ve seen in on video since then. I quite liked it when I first saw it, and my appreciation of it has only grown. But my memory of the time is that the film reviews weren’t that great.

The film reviews generally applauded much of the film — including the dance numbers. After all, it was a Bob Fosse film, and movie “critics” might not know much, but they do know enough to not knock Fosse on that score. But when it comes to films like All That Jazz, you can depend upon these hacks to be more interested in what they bring into the film than what’s up there on the screen.

Of course, now the film is a classic. It tends to happen. Over time, people are better able to see a film on its own terms. And even at the time, it was loved by more sophisticated film goers than the ombudsmen who call themselves critics. It shared the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or with another great film, Kagemusha. And it did garner a lot of Academy Award nominations, but largely lost out to the tiresome Kramer vs Kramer.

I was curious to check out what film reviews said back then.

Film Reviews Then and Now

Wikipedia has an annoying tendency to include a lot of recent film reviews in its “Critical Reception” section. The new film reviews should be classified under “Critical Reputation.” Still, there is some information on the old reviews. The reception among “critics” at the time is pretty well summed up by this quote from Variety, “All That Jazz is a self-important, egomaniacal, wonderfully choreographed, often compelling film.”

But I was surprised to see that many of the more recent film reviews haven’t changed much. Leonard Maltin gave the film 2.5 starts out of 4 — an indication he doesn’t even think it’s good? He called it “self-indulgent” and “negative” and “buried in pretensions.” What?! All works of art are self-indulgent. Do they all have to be “positive”? And “buried in pretensions” is meaningless.

Did You Even Watch the Film?

However, for a perfect example of just how bad film reviews are, you can’t go wrong with with Time Out London. Back in 2008, they published a very brief review. Here is the last third of it:

Fellini-esque moments add little but pretension; and scenes of a real open-heart operation, alternating with footage of a symbolic Angel of Death in veil and white gloves, fail even in terms of the surreal.

I hate when people throw around Fellini to explain any kind of film structure that isn’t traditional. It isn’t accurate, although Fellini (along with countless other directors) clearly did influence Fosse. But it’s also unfair to Fellini. He was a lot more than and Amarcord. But leave that aside.

The end of the sentence is factually wrong: “scenes of a real open-heart operation, alternating with footage of a symbolic Angel of Death in veil and white gloves, fail even in terms of the surreal.” Such a sequence might well fail to be surreal. Of course, no such sequence is in the film. The surgery footage is intercut with the film producers discussing Joe Gideon’s possible death with their insurance company. The conclusion is that if Gideon dies, they will make a half million dollars. I don’t have a simple word for what Fosse was going for — “irony” is close — but “surreal” is not it.

Why Film Reviews Suck

The best film reviews generally reflect a single engaged viewing. Too many involve a distracted viewing. But film reviews like this are so front-loaded with opinions as to be journalistic malpractice. Whoever wrote the review (it has no byline) probably saw the film at some point — maybe when it was first out, 28 years before the review was written. It’s not fair to the film. And it’s not fair to the reader. But that’s what film reviews are all about.

8 thoughts on “Film Reviews and All That Jazz

  1. There is a reason I stick with reviewers from places like Youtube. Unlike print media, they feel free to say if they like something or not. And my favorite one-Nostalgia Critic is always fair about any movie even ones he hates. That includes movies that have a certain reputation like the new Ghostbusters.

    Did you go here for old film reviews? It may help in the future.

    • This is why I liked the Q-Filmcast guys (they stopped after 100 episodes). They didn’t pretend to be critics. They just said what they liked and they gave a really good idea if you would like the film. It would be a great idea to do the same thing with a group of women. I always found the Q-Filmcast guys a little too, well, “guy.” But the funny thing was, that even with their lack of qualifications, they actually were much more insightful about the films than most “critics.” It might be because they didn’t bring a lot of baggage with them. They weren’t trying to impress.

      I like actual film criticism. But most people just want to know if they will like a film. I try to be clear that just because I liked a film doesn’t mean others will. I made that really clear with Die Wand — a film I thought was marvelous, but I don’t think would appeal to most people. I don’t see why professional “critics” can’t do that, “I thought [whatever] was horrible, but it will likely find a big audience among young women.” Or whatever.

      • I think something that affects what both of you are discussing is how critics watch films; they attend preview screenings, they don’t go with paying audiences or watch with friends. An audience’s reaction can be very different from mine; people might walk out of or snore through a movie I’m enjoying, laugh and cheer at a movie I’m bored by. Even watching a movie with one friend (or discussing it with a friend later) can give you an interesting different perspective.

        Where you see a movie matters, too. Audiences of different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds will respond differently. And not always the way you predict! A horror movie that might be fun with an audience all yelling at the same things might be way too spooky to watch alone, at home. A comedy you find funny but others don’t will be better alone, at home.

        And then of course there’s the nature of print film criticism; it’s basically promoting films that advertise in the publication. Usually even a negative review of a big-budget movie will get the front page of the “Arts” section and a long review; while low-budget films might get a paragraph in small print or nothing. So the promoted negative review still makes the movie “what people are talking about.”

        What can make an experienced critic better than a newbie is their viewing experience. If i was trying to explain a new film by little-known filmmakers, comparing and contrasting it with other films can better demonstrate what the movie’s like. This is really overused by bad critics, though, so nobody pays attention to it anymore. “It’s the new Jaws! It’s the new Fellini!” Whatever.

        Not like it matters. Movies now are basically entertainment for teenagers and a place for parents to take small kids. I’d like to see the big chain theaters die out when teens get bored with comic books (which, at some point, they will) and see a revival of independently-operated theaters, second-run theaters, drive-ins. But if I were a betting man, I’d just predict theaters as a whole are gone in 20 years. Which is too bad; I like cheap theaters, and popcorn.

        • When I was reviewing films, they were always with audiences at free screenings. The studios don’t like critics to watch films alone. This is because the studios understand the critics better than the critics themselves do.

          • Ah. I did it some for my LA college paper, and they were all private screenings. But maybe I wasn’t considered in the top tier of critics (reasonably enough, I was 17!)

            • I meant to imply that. They did used to be that way. But by the mid-90s, it was almost entirely packed audiences. The studios learned.

    • Yes. There is film as commodity and film as art. Most people care about the former. My problem with critics is that they do too, but they claim to care about it as art. None that publish in newspapers do.

      That’s a good resource. Thanks!

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